After deciding I could no longer spend my life auditioning for Broadway shows and waiting tables (let’s face it — I was burned out from singing 16 bars), I then spent several years working 9-6pm “assistant” jobs in NYC. I worked as an Executive Assistant to the CEO of a hedge fund, I worked as a nanny (another fave job), I worked as a personal assistant, as an admin assistant in financial services and I’m sure a few other assistant jobs in there. But what prepared me MOST for owning my own agency was the one job where I was NOT an assistant. It was my final NYC job as Program Coordinator for a busy, NYC tech startup non-profit where I worked for nearly 4 years.
I realized recently that working for a startup was the best training ground for creating the business of my dreams. The startup environment is so unique and also hard/exhausting, but so rewarding.
And here’s why this was the best career move for me:
- I wore 15 hats. Ok, maybe 6 (but it felt like 15 some days). I spent my mornings working in logistics/international shipping and then afternoons doing an email campaign/tweeting, entering invoices into QuickBooks, booking international travel (to remote parts of Africa!), helping to design a new office space, assisting our accountant with our annual audit, booking hotels in remote parts of Africa and more. Endless. When you work for a startup, you get the chance to take on many things. This was such an incredible training ground for a future small business owner.
- Freedom. I was given the freedom to try things in my work. I think this should maybe be #1 here. For many years as an assistant working in financial offices, it was the opposite. No freedom. No say. A very “Mad Men”-ish, secretarial existence (which killed me softly inside for years). In a startup, many times, you’re given a lot of freedom in your work to try things. No one ever breathed down my back to make sure I was completing a task. Therefore, I worked harder. I was happier. I wanted to be there making an impact every day. A sense of “freedom” in the workplace makes the difference between a job and a great job.
- Small teams. At this startup, I worked on a small, amazing team. Working closely with just a few people (who also each wore 15 hats) taught me so much about working closely with a colleague. Most of my work now is one-on-one with a client or solo-entrepreneur. It’s so important to learn how to communicate well (and fast) with your colleagues and working in a startup was great prep.
- Fast-paced. In a startup (or a great startup at least), you’ll learn quickly the meaning of “fast-paced.” I’ve always worked pretty fast, but when you have 4 people running an entire company with many things happening, you learn to work as fast (and diligent) as possible. Learning to work in a fast-paced environment is so, so important if you want to run your own business. It’s a must. I’m still trying to get on “Tahoe Time” here…
- Great People. I had incredible managers who asked me on a monthly basis – “what do you want to do, Emily?” — “what do you want to focus on?” — “How can we help you develop this?” A great startup usually has a rigorous hiring process because they want the brightest people on their small team to grow their business from the ground — up. I was very lucky to have worked with smart, smart people who taught me to so much and cared enough about me to help develop my natural work talents.
- Risk-taking was OK. I worked for a CEO and manager who took risks (see my “testimonials” page). Calculated, smart risks…but risks. We tried things a lot — some worked and some didn’t. Most did — not gonna lie. But — this sense of “the worst thing you could do is NOT try” really stuck with me. In this past year, I have said yes to some potential clients who I did not think I could take on (or was scared to) and it’s turned out wonderful.
- Flexibility in the workplace. We had a generous maternity leave policy and the option to “ease” back into work after maternity leave (working from home on Fridays for a few months before coming back 5 days a week), which was SO incredibly helpful for me. These things really make a massive difference and most big corporations don’t have such flexible policies. I was also given the flexibility in the office to work wherever – rarely at my desk. At the office kitchen counter. In the small phone rooms. On the couch. The startup environment is awesome in this way — allowing employees to get up and move freely, which in turn makes them more productive and never bored. I am a firm believer that you could and should work where you’re most comfortable. For me, it’s at home by myself (or at a coffee shop). 🙂 For some, it’s in a bustling office. But it should be wherever you work the best.
- Modern business systems/ideas. Most startups are just that – starting up. And to do this, the business owner/CEO/Founder wants to make their employees happy. Many startups have a lot of fun perks and benefits (we didn’t have a ping pong table, but we did have a sweet espresso machine and some awesome views). They also use a lot of modern systems to run their business. Because of this, I learned so much about working “in the cloud” and running a paperless/electronic business. I think so much of my work now involves systems for entrepreneurs (and systems that I learned there), so learning these programs was huge
I think a lot about how I got to this point of running my own marketing agency. And I think a lot of it is because I worked for a fast-paced, NYC startup that gave me the freedom to thrive and focus on what I loved working on. Instead of being held down to cubicle life, I was built-up daily and given the reigns to try things and take risks (something I had never had before in any job). I owe so much to my managers for letting me run with it. It’s thanks to that work environment that I am where I am today.